To avoid virtual anarchy, we must move cautiously and fix things
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s oft-quoted mantra “move fast and break things” has turned out to be a dangerous strategy when it comes to the evolution of virtuality. It takes advantage of the propensity of people to leap off virtual cliffs in return for the transitory high delivered by the next hit of technology.
Zuckerberg wants to usher us into the metaverse — the next virtual chamber of pleasures and horrors. Proceed with caution, as the stakes are increasing as each new wave of technology subsumes more and more of our lives with no apparent sense of order or user control.
That is ironic since people work mightily to ensure the safety and stability of their analogue worlds through the establishment of rules, police, borders and armies. No one willingly invites strangers into their home and shares personal, medical, financial and other sensitive information with them. But there are vast numbers of us who do that every day online, often willingly, encouraging a virtual wild west of insecurity, unwanted surveillance and anonymous anarchy.
I have been engaged in developing financial technologies as a regulator and private attorney since the 1970s. I understand the underlying sciences that support cryptography, blockchains, payments systems, cryptocurrencies and quantum computing. But my years of euphoria over each new development have turned to concern as I have come to appreciate how artificial intelligence, facial recognition, quantum computing, nano sciences, brain computer interfaces, synthetic biology and self-replicating neurons can be used to disadvantage people and blur the lines between biological and non-biological existence.
Each day it becomes more apparent that the dark underbelly of technology creates parallel universes where crime is often undetectable, and supremacy belongs to whomever possesses the most advanced computers and skills. Indeed, hackers are collecting sensitive, encrypted data now in the hope that they’ll be able to unlock it using quantum computing in a decade.
A report issued by the United States Cyberspace Solarium Commission in March 2020, all but cries out for leaders to step forward and secure or reconstruct cyberspace.
Unfortunately, cyberattacks continue to be explained away as the downside of progress that we simply must deal with. This sense of “breach inevitability” shields companies and governments from the harsh criticisms and economic penalties that might otherwise compel them to require more strongly coded software, more resilient hardware and less vendor or employee-triggered cyberattacks. The “apologize, rinse, and repeat” approach should not excuse inferior products or processes.
I have come to believe that the internet is broken, and that we need a new one. Today’s internet has evolved into a form of virtual chaos where data is up for grabs, innovation is rewarded and insecurity rarely punished. Unlike the analogue world, every person and company in cyberspace has essentially been deputized to be responsible for their own defense. It is as if the secretary of defense has ordered 7-Eleven to purchase ballistic missiles to defend every one of its stores from attacks by nation states. It is no wonder that vulnerabilities are increasing at an exponential rate like cyber canaries gasping for air in virtual coal mines.
The metaverse is billed as the next generation of the internet — a virtual quilt of interconnected online video games, the world wide web, social media, online shopping and cryptocurrencies. The rules there will again be made by innovators driven by “progress” and the billions of dollars that can be made from selling technological snake oil and collecting even more data about us. How can it make sense to dive headlong into that world and cede even more personal space to progress when we have hardly figured out how to manage our security and safety in the virtual world we already have?
We have failed at making virtual spaces safe and educating users about the risks. And no one has confronted the fundamental question virtual reality raises: Who should be making decisions about what virtual governance should look like and how it should function? We all want to believe that the government is all over this problem and that we are somehow protected. It is not, and we are not.
The challenge is complex. Nation states, criminal cartels and terrorists are working overtime to achieve the functional equivalence of geopolitical superiority that they could never have attained in the analogue world. If a government assumes the job of regulating virtual reality, bureaucracies will grind progress to a halt in that country while others continue to sprint forward. If we ignore governance or leave it to technologists, we will continue to have increasing virtual anarchy. Society is faced with two bad choices, which means we will have to find the best worst option, a daunting challenge indeed.
Global partnerships between the public and private sectors must begin to orchestrate the future of technology and the security of virtuality to ensure that order prevails in cyberspace, the metaverse or whatever technological nirvana follows them. That should include stronger authentication, increased governance, consumer transparency, the imposition of security standards and rating systems, more secure software, more resilient hardware and the establishment of enforcement mechanisms.
Identifying the problem is the easy part. Finding and balancing the potential solutions is perhaps in the greatest existential challenge that humanity faces. But given the alternative, solutions must be found. Governments can’t do it alone, and the private sector won’t do it. We are in a pickle that requires global leadership, if that is possible.
With apologies to Zuckerberg, it is time to move cautiously and hope we don’t break any more of the worlds we live in.
Thomas P. Vartanian is the author of “200 Years of American Financial Panics: Crashes, Recessions, Depressions, And The Technology That Will Change It All.”